My Sweet Lord
|"My Sweet Lord"|
|Single by George Harrison|
|from the album All Things Must Pass|
"Isn't It a Pity" (US) |
|B-side||"What Is Life" (UK)|
23 November 1970 (US)|
15 January 1971 (UK)
|Genre||Folk rock, gospel|
|Producer(s)||George Harrison, Phil Spector|
|George Harrison singles chronology|
"My Sweet Lord" is a song by English musician and former Beatle George Harrison that was released in November 1970 on his triple album All Things Must Pass. Also issued as a single, Harrison's first as a solo artist, "My Sweet Lord" topped charts worldwide and was the biggest-selling single of 1971 in the UK. In America and Britain, the song was the first number one single by an ex-Beatle. Harrison originally gave the song to his fellow Apple Records artist Billy Preston to record; this version, which Harrison co-produced, appeared on Preston's Encouraging Words album in September 1970.
Harrison wrote "My Sweet Lord" in praise of the Hindu god Krishna, while at the same time intending the lyrics to serve as a call to abandon religious sectarianism through his deliberate blending of the Hebrew word hallelujah with chants of "Hare Krishna" and Vedic prayer. The recording features producer Phil Spector's Wall of Sound treatment and heralded the arrival of Harrison's much-admired slide guitar technique, which one biographer described as being "musically as distinctive a signature as the mark of Zorro". Preston, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and the group Badfinger are among the other musicians appearing on the recording.
Later in the 1970s, "My Sweet Lord" was at the centre of a heavily publicised copyright infringement suit, due to its similarity to the Ronnie Mack song "He's So Fine", a 1963 hit for the New York girl group the Chiffons. In 1976, Harrison was found to have subconsciously plagiarised the earlier tune, a verdict that had repercussions throughout the music industry. He claimed to have used the out-of-copyright "Oh Happy Day", a Christian hymn, as his inspiration for the song's melody.
Harrison performed "My Sweet Lord" at the Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971, and it remains the most popular composition from his post-Beatles career. He reworked the song as "My Sweet Lord (2000)" for inclusion as a bonus track on the 30th anniversary reissue of All Things Must Pass. Many artists have covered the song including Andy Williams, Peggy Lee, Edwin Starr, Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone, Julio Iglesias, Richie Havens, Megadeth, Boy George, Elton John, Jim James, Bonnie Bramlett and Elliott Smith. "My Sweet Lord" is ranked 460th on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The song reached number 1 in Britain for a second time when re-released in January 2002, two months after Harrison's death.
George Harrison began writing "My Sweet Lord" in December 1969, when he, Billy Preston and Eric Clapton were in Copenhagen, Denmark, as guest artists on Delaney & Bonnie's European tour. By this time, Harrison had already written the gospel-influenced "Hear Me Lord" and "Gopala Krishna", and (with Preston) the African-American spiritual "Sing One for the Lord". He had also produced two religious-themed hit singles on the Beatles' Apple record label: Preston's "That's the Way God Planned It" and Radha Krishna Temple (London)'s "Hare Krishna Mantra". The latter was a musical adaptation of the 5000-year-old Vaishnava Hindu mantra, performed by members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), colloquially known as "the Hare Krishna movement". Harrison now wanted to fuse the messages of the Christian and Gaudiya Vaishnava faiths into what musical biographer Simon Leng terms "gospel incantation with a Vedic chant".
The Copenhagen stopover marked the end of the Delaney & Bonnie tour, with a three-night residency at the Falkoner Theatre on 10–12 December. According to Harrison's 1976 court testimony, "My Sweet Lord" was conceived while the band members were attending a backstage press conference and he had ducked out to an upstairs room at the theatre. Harrison recalled vamping chords on guitar and alternating between sung phrases of "hallelujah" and "Hare Krishna". He later took the idea to the others, and the chorus vocals were developed further. Band leader Delaney Bramlett's more recent version of events is that the idea originated from Harrison asking him how to go about writing a genuine gospel song, and that Bramlett demonstrated by scat singing the words "Oh my Lord" while wife Bonnie and singer Rita Coolidge added gospel "hallelujah"s in reply. British music journalist John Harris has questioned the accuracy of Bramlett's account, however, comparing it to a fisherman's "It was this big"-type bragging story.
Using as his inspiration the Edwin Hawkins Singers' rendition of an eighteenth-century Christian hymn, "Oh Happy Day", Harrison continued working on the theme. He completed the song, with some help from Preston, once they had returned to London.
The song's lyrics reflect Harrison's often-stated desire for a direct relationship with God, expressed in simple words that all believers could affirm, regardless of their religion. Author Ian Inglis observes a degree of "understandable" impatience in the first verse's line, "Really want to see you, Lord, but it takes so long, my Lord". By the end of the song's second verse, Harrison declares a wish to "know" God also and attempts to reconcile the impatience:
I really want to know you
Really want to go with you
Really want to show you, Lord, that it won't take long, my Lord
Following this verse, in response to the main vocal's repetition of the song title, Harrison devised a choral line singing the Hebrew word of praise, "hallelujah", common in the Christian and Jewish religions. Later in the song, after an instrumental break, these voices return, now chanting the first twelve words of the Hare Krishna mantra, known more reverentially as the Maha mantra:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
These Sanskrit words are the main mantra of the Hare Krishna faith, with which Harrison identified, although he did not belong to any spiritual organisation. In his 1980 autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison explained that he intended repeating and alternating "hallelujah" and "Hare Krishna" to show that the two terms meant "quite the same thing", as well as to have listeners chanting the mantra "before they knew what was going on!"
Following the Sanskrit lines, "hallelujah" is sung twice more before the mantra repeats, along with an ancient Vedic prayer. According to Hindu tradition, this prayer is dedicated to a devotee's spiritual teacher, or guru, and equates the teacher to the divine Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (or Maheshvara) – and to the Godhead, Brahman.
Gurur Brahmā, gurur Viṣṇur
gurur devo Maheśvaraḥ
gurus sākṣāt, paraṃ Brahma
tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ.
Former Krishna devotee Joshua Greene translates the lines as follows: "I offer homage to my guru, who is as great as the creator Brahma, the maintainer Vishnu, the destroyer Shiva, and who is the very energy of God." The prayer is the third verse of the Guru Stotram, a fourteen-verse hymn in praise of Hindu spiritual teachers.
Some Christian fundamentalist anti-rock activists objected that chanting "Hare Krishna" in "My Sweet Lord" was anti-Christian or satanic, while some born-again Christians adopted the song as an anthem. Several commentators cite the mantra and the simplicity of Harrison's lyrics as central to the song's universality. The "lyrics are not directed at a specific manifestation of a single faith's deity," Inglis writes, "but rather to the concept of one god whose essential nature is unaffected by particular interpretations and who pervades everything, is present everywhere, is all-knowing and all-powerful, and transcends time and space ... All of us – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist – can address our gods in the same way, using the same phrase ['my sweet Lord']."
Billy Preston's version
|"My Sweet Lord"|
|Single by Billy Preston|
|from the album Encouraging Words|
|Released||3 December 1970|
|Producer(s)||George Harrison, Billy Preston|
|Billy Preston singles chronology|
With the Beatles still together officially in December 1969, Harrison had no plans to make a solo album of his own and reportedly intended to offer "My Sweet Lord" to Edwin Hawkins. Instead, following the Delaney & Bonnie tour, he decided to record it with Billy Preston, for whom Harrison was co-producing a second Apple album, Encouraging Words. Recording took place at Olympic Studios in London, in January 1970, with Preston as principal musician, supported by the guitarist, bass player and drummer from the Temptations' backing band. The Edwin Hawkins Singers happened to be on tour in the UK as well, so Harrison invited them to participate; Hawkins' gospel group also overdubbed vocals onto the Harrison–Preston collaboration "Sing One for the Lord" at this time.
Preston's version of "My Sweet Lord" differs from Harrison's later reading in that the "hallelujah" refrain appears from the start of the song and, rather than the full mantra section, the words "Hare Krishna" are sung only twice throughout the whole track. With the Vedic prayer likewise absent, Simon Leng views this original recording as a possible "definitive 'roots' take'" of the song, thanks to its "pure gospel groove" and Hawkins' participation. In his review of Encouraging Words, Bruce Eder of AllMusic describes "My Sweet Lord" and "All Things Must Pass" (another Harrison composition originally given to Preston to record) as "stunning gospel numbers ... that make the Harrison versions seem pallid".
Preston's "My Sweet Lord" was a minor hit in Europe when issued as a single there in September 1970, but otherwise, Encouraging Words made little impression commercially. The album and single releases were delayed for at least two months in the United States, where "My Sweet Lord" would climb to number 90 on the Billboard Hot 100 by the end of February 1971, helped by the enormous success of Harrison's version.
Five months after the Olympic session, with the Beatles having now broken up, "My Sweet Lord" was one of 30 or more tracks that Harrison recorded for his All Things Must Pass triple album. It was a song he had been reluctant to record, for fear of committing himself publicly to such an overt religious message. "I was sticking my neck out on the chopping block because now I would have to live up to something," Harrison explained in I Me Mine, "but at the same time I thought 'Nobody's saying it; I wish somebody else was doing it.'"
With Phil Spector co-producing the sessions at Abbey Road Studios, Preston again played on the track, along with Clapton, Ringo Starr, Jim Gordon and all four members of Badfinger. The identity of the remaining musicians has traditionally been open to question, with drummer Alan White once claiming he played on the song, with Carl Radle on bass, Starr on tambourine and John Lennon among the rhythm guitarists. The common view, following research by Simon Leng, is that Harrison and Spector chose from a number of rhythm tracks before selecting the master take, which featured, among others, Klaus Voormann on bass and Gary Wright on a second keyboard; Bruce Spizer suggests that Peter Frampton may have added acoustic guitar after the main session. Harrison's original vocal appears to have been acceptable, according to notes written by Spector in August, but the chorus vocals (all sung by Harrison and credited to "the George O'Hara-Smith Singers"), his harmonised slide guitar parts, and John Barham's orchestral arrangement were overdubbed during the next two months, partly at Trident Studios in central London.
Leng describes the recording as a "painstakingly crafted tableau" of sound, beginning with a bank of "chiming" acoustic guitars and the "flourish" of zither strings that introduces Harrison's slide-guitar motif. At close to the two-minute mark, after the tension-building bridge, a subtle two-semitone shift in key (from E major to the rarely used key of F-sharp major, via a C# dominant seventh chord) signals the song's release from its extended introduction. This higher register is then complemented by Harrison's "increasingly impassioned" vocal and the subsequent "timely reappearance" of his twin slide guitars, before the backing vocals "deftly" switch to the Sanskrit mantra and prayer. Leng also notes the Indian music aspects of the production, in the "swarmandal-like" zithers, representing the sympathetic strings of a sitar, and the slide guitars' evocation of sarangi, dilruba and other string instruments. In an interview for Martin Scorsese's 2011 documentary on George Harrison, Spector recalls that he liked the results so much, he insisted that "My Sweet Lord" be the lead single from the album.
This later, rock version of the song was markedly different from the "Oh Happy Day"-inspired gospel arrangement in musical and structural terms, aligning Harrison's composition with pop music conventions, but also drawing out the similarities of its melody line with that of the Chiffons' 1963 hit "He's So Fine". Spizer suggests that this was due to Harrison being "so focused on the feel of his record", while Record Collector editor Peter Doggett wrote in 2001 that, despite Harrison's inspiration for "My Sweet Lord" having come from "Oh Happy Day", "in the hands of producer and arranger Phil Spector, it came out as a carbon copy of the Chiffons' [song]". Chip Madinger and Mark Easter remark on the "sad" fact that Spector, as "master of all that was 'girl-group' during the early '60s", failed to recognise the similarities.
Before arriving in New York on 28 October to carry out mastering on All Things Must Pass, Harrison had announced that no single would be issued – so as not to "detract from the impact" of the triple album. Apple's US executive, Allan Steckler, together with business manager Allen Klein and Spector all pushed for "My Sweet Lord" to be released immediately, however, even though Billy Preston's version was already scheduled for release as a single in America the following month. Film director Howard Worth recalls a preliminary finance meeting for the Raga documentary (for which Harrison would provide emergency funding through Apple Films) that began with the ex-Beatle asking him to listen to a selection of songs and pick his favourite, which was "My Sweet Lord".
Harrison relented, and "My Sweet Lord" was issued as the album's lead single around the world, but not in Britain; the release date was 23 November 1970 in the United States. The mix of the song differed from that found on All Things Must Pass by featuring less echo and a slightly altered backing-vocal track. Both sides of the North American picture sleeve consisted of a Barry Feinstein photo of Harrison taken through a window at his recently purchased Friar Park home, with some of the estate's trees reflected in the glass. Released as a double A-side with "Isn't It a Pity", with Apple catalogue number 2995 in America, both sides of the disc featured a full Apple label.
Public demand via constant airplay in Britain led to a belated UK release, on 15 January 1971. There, as Apple R 5884, the single was backed by "What Is Life", a song that Apple soon released elsewhere internationally as the follow-up to "My Sweet Lord".
Harrison's version of "My Sweet Lord" was an international number 1 hit by the end of 1970 and through the early months of 1971 – the first solo single by a Beatle to reach the top, and the biggest seller by any of the four throughout the 1970s. Without the support of any concert appearances or promotional interviews by Harrison, the single's commercial success was due to its impact on radio, where, Harrison biographer Gary Tillery writes, the song "rolled across the airwaves like a juggernaut, with commanding presence, much the way Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' had arrived in the mid-sixties". Elton John recalls first hearing "My Sweet Lord" in a taxi and names it as the last of the era's great singles: "I thought, 'Oh my God,' and I got chills. You know when a record starts on the radio, and it's great, and you think, 'Oh, what is this, what is this, what is this?' The only other record I ever felt that way about [afterwards] was 'Brown Sugar' ..." In his 40-page Harrison tribute article for Rolling Stone in 2002, Mikal Gilmore credited "My Sweet Lord" as being "as pervasive on radio and in youth consciousness as anything the Beatles had produced".
The single was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America on 14 December 1970 for sales of over 1 million copies. It reached number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 on 26 December, remaining on top for four weeks, three of which coincided with All Things Must Pass's seven-week reign atop the Billboard albums chart. In Britain, "My Sweet Lord" entered the charts at number 7, before hitting number 1 on 30 January and staying there for five weeks. It was the biggest-selling single of 1971 in the UK and performed similarly well around the world, particularly in France and Germany, where it held the top spot for nine and ten weeks, respectively. In his 2001 appraisal of Harrison's Apple recordings, for Record Collector, Doggett described Harrison as "arguably the most successful rock star on the planet" over this period, adding: "'My Sweet Lord' and All Things Must Pass topped charts all over the world, easily outstripping other solo Beatles projects later in the year, such as Ram and Imagine."
The single's worldwide sales amounted to 5 million copies by 1978, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. By 2010, according to Inglis, "My Sweet Lord" had sold over 10 million copies. The song returned to the number 1 position again in the UK when reissued in January 2002, two months after Harrison's death from cancer at the age of 58.
Peter Lavezzoli, author of The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, has written of Harrison's first solo single: "'My Sweet Lord' was everything that people wanted to hear in November 1970: shimmering harmonies, lustrous acoustic guitars, a solid Ringo Starr backbeat, and an exquisite [Harrison] guitar solo." Reviewing the single for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau called the track "sensational". In an era when songs by Radha Krishna Temple and adaptations of the Christian hymns "Oh Happy Day" and "Amazing Grace" were all worldwide hits, Ben Gerson of Rolling Stone observed that the substituting of Harrison's "Hare Krishna" refrain for the trivial "Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang"s of "He's So Fine" was "a sign of the times". (As John Lennon famously told a reporter around this time, "Every time I put the radio on, it's 'Oh my Lord' – I'm beginning to think there must be a God!") In his December 1970 album review for NME, Alan Smith bemoaned the apparent lack of a UK single release for "My Sweet Lord" and noted that the song "seems to owe something" to "He's So Fine". To Gerson, it was an "obvious re-write" of the Chiffons hit, and within two months US music publisher Bright Tunes had served a writ on Harrison citing unauthorised copyright infringement. In a January 1971 review for NME, Derek Johnson expressed surprise at Apple's delay in releasing the single in the UK, before declaring: "In my opinion, this record – finally and irrevocably – establishes George as a talent equivalent to either Lennon or McCartney."
More recently, AllMusic's Richie Unterberger explains the international popularity of Harrison's single: "'My Sweet Lord' has a quasi-religious feel, but nevertheless has enough conventional pop appeal to reach mainstream listeners who may or may not care to dig into the spiritual lyrical message." Added to this was a slide guitar riff that Simon Leng describes as "among the best-known guitar passages in popular music". Ian Inglis highlights the combination of Harrison's "evident lack of artifice" and Spector's "excellent production", such that "My Sweet Lord" can be heard "as a prayer, a love song, an anthem, a contemporary gospel track, or a piece of perfect pop".
Due to the ensuing plagiarism suit, "My Sweet Lord" became somewhat stigmatised by association, to the point where no mention of the song was complete without a reference to "He's So Fine". "My Sweet Lord" was ranked 460th on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2004, yet the accompanying text only briefly mentioned the success of the single and Harrison's "teardrop slide licks" before concentrating on the controversial lawsuit. While acknowledging the common ground between the two songs, music critic David Fricke describes Harrison's composition as "the honest child of black American sacred song". Writing around the time of All Things Must Pass's 2001 reissue, again for Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis described "My Sweet Lord" as "capturing the sweet satisfactions of faith", while to Mikal Gilmore, it is an "irresistible devotional".
At the end of 1971, "My Sweet Lord" topped the Melody Maker reader's polls for both "Single of the Year" and "World's Single of the Year"; in the US publication Record World, the song was also voted best single and Harrison was honoured as "Top Male Vocalist of 1971". In June 1972, Harrison won two Ivor Novello songwriter's awards for "My Sweet Lord". In 2010, AOL Radio listeners voted "My Sweet Lord" the best song from George Harrison's solo years, ahead of "Blow Away" and "What Is Life". Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have both named it among their personal favourites of all Harrison's songs, along with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". According to the website Acclaimed Music, "My Sweet Lord" has also appeared in the following critics' best-song lists and books, among others: The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944–2000 by author Bruce Pollock (2005), Dave Thompson's 1000 Songs That Rock Your World (2011; ranked at number 247), Ultimate Classic Rock's "Top 100 Classic Rock Songs" (2013; number 56), the NME's "100 Best Songs of the 1970s" (2012; number 65), and the same magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" (2014; number 270).
Copyright infringement suit
On 10 February 1971, Bright Tunes filed suit against Harrison and associated organisations (including Harrisongs, Apple Records and BMI), alleging copyright infringement of the late Ronnie Mack's song "He's So Fine". In I Me Mine, Harrison admits to having thought "Why didn't I realise?" when others started pointing out the similarity between the two songs; by June that year, country singer Jody Miller had released a cover of "He's So Fine" incorporating Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" slide-guitar riffs, thus "really putting the screws in" from his point of view. On Harrison's behalf, manager Allen Klein entered into negotiations with Bright Tunes to resolve the issue, by offering to buy the financially ailing publisher's entire catalogue, but no settlement could be reached before the company was forced into receivership.
While comparing the two compositions, author and musicologist Dominic Pedler writes that both songs have a three-syllable title refrain ("My sweet Lord", "He's so fine") followed by a 5-3-2 descent of the major scale in the tonic key (E major for "My Sweet Lord" and G major for "He's So Fine"); respective tempos are similar: 121 and 145 beats per minute. In the respective B sections ("I really want to see you" and "I dunno how I'm gonna do it"), there is a similar ascent through 5-6-8, but the Chiffons distinctively retain the G tonic for four bars and, on the repeat of the motif, uniquely go to an A-note 9th embellishment over the first syllable of "gonna". Harrison, on the other hand, introduces the more complex harmony of a relative minor (C#m), as well as the fundamental and distinctly original slide-guitar motif.
While the case was on hold, Harrison and his former bandmates Lennon and Starr chose to sever ties with Klein at the end of March 1973 – an acrimonious split that led to further lawsuits for the three ex-Beatles. Bright Tunes and Harrison later resumed their negotiations; his final offer of 40 per cent of "My Sweet Lord"'s US composer's and publisher's royalties, along with a stipulation that he retain copyright for his song, was viewed as a "good one" by Bright's legal representation, yet the offer was rejected. It later transpired that Klein had renewed his efforts to purchase the ailing company, now solely for himself, and to that end was supplying Bright Tunes with insider details regarding "My Sweet Lord"'s sales figures and copyright value. In the build-up to the case going to court, the Chiffons recorded a version of "My Sweet Lord", with the aim of drawing attention to the lawsuit. Beatles author Alan Clayson has described the plagiarism suit as "the most notorious civil action of the decade", the "extremity" of the proceedings provoked by a combination of the commercial success of Harrison's single and the intervention of "litigation-loving Mr Klein".
Court hearing and ruling
Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music finally went to the United States district court on 23 February 1976, to hear evidence on the allegation of plagiarism. Harrison attended the proceedings in New York, with a guitar, and each side called musical experts to support its argument.
After reconvening in September 1976, the court found that Harrison had "subconsciously" copied the earlier tune, since he admitted to having been aware of the Chiffons' recording. Judge Richard Owen said in his conclusion to the proceedings:
Did Harrison deliberately use the music of He's So Fine? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that My Sweet Lord is the very same song as He's So Fine with different words, and Harrison had access to He's So Fine. This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.
Damages and subsequent litigation
With liability established, the court then recommended an amount for the damages to be paid by Harrison and Apple to Bright Tunes, which Owen totalled at $1,599,987 – amounting to three-quarters of the royalty revenue raised in North America from "My Sweet Lord", as well as a significant proportion of that from the All Things Must Pass album. This figure has been considered over-harsh and unrealistic by some observers, since it both underplayed the unique elements of Harrison's recording – the universal spiritual message of its lyrics, the signature guitar hook, and its production – and ignored the critical acclaim his album received in its own right. Elliot Huntley observes: "People don't usually hear a single and then automatically go and buy an expensive boxed-set triple album on the off-chance." The award factored in the royalty revenue raised from "My Sweet Lord"'s inclusion on the recent Best of George Harrison compilation, though at a more moderate percentage than for the 1970 album.
The ruling set new legal precedents and was a personal blow for Harrison, who admitted he was too "paranoid" to write anything new for some time afterwards. Early reaction in the music industry saw Little Richard claim for breach of copyright in a track recorded by the Beatles in 1964 for the Beatles for Sale album, as well as Ringo Starr credit songwriter Clifford T. Ward as the inspiration for his Ringo's Rotogravure song "Lady Gaye". In the UK, the corresponding damages suit, brought by Peter Maurice Music, was swiftly settled out of court in July 1977.
During the drawn-out damages portion of the US suit, events played into Harrison's hands when Klein's ABKCO Industries finally purchased the copyright to "He's So Fine", and with it all litigation claims, after which Klein proceeded to negotiate sale of the song to Harrison. On 19 February 1981, the court decided that due to Klein's duplicity in the case, Harrison would only have to pay ABKCO $587,000 instead of the $1.6 million award and he would also receive the rights to "He's So Fine" – $587,000 being the amount Klein had paid Bright Tunes for the song in 1978. The court ruled that the former manager's actions had been in breach of the fiduciary duty owed to Harrison, a duty that continued "even after the principal–agent relationship ended". The litigation continued through to the early 1990s, however, as the finer points of the settlement were ironed out; in his 1993 essay on Bright Tunes v. Harrisongs, Joseph Self describes it as "without question, one of the longest running legal battles ever to be litigated in [the United States]". Matters would not ultimately be concluded until March 1998.
Subsequent charges of plagiarism in the music industry have resulted in a policy of swift settlement and therefore limited damage to an artist's credibility: the Rolling Stones' "Anybody Seen My Baby?", Oasis' "Shakermaker", "Whatever" and "Step Out", and the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" are all examples of songs whose writing credits were hastily altered to acknowledge composers of a potentially plagiarised work, with the minimum of litigation.
Shortly before the ruling was handed down in September 1976, Harrison wrote and recorded a song inspired by the court case – the upbeat "This Song" – which includes the line "This tune has nothing 'Bright' about it". The 1960s soul hits "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and "Rescue Me", as well as his own composition "You", are all name-checked in the lyrics, as if to demonstrate the point that, as he later put it, "99% of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other."
In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon expressed his doubts about the notion of "subconscious" plagiarism, saying: "He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that ... He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off." Ringo Starr's reaction was more charitable: "There's no doubt that the tune is similar but how many songs have been written with other melodies in mind? George's version is much heavier than The Chiffons – he might have done it with the original in the back of his mind, but he's just very unlucky that someone wanted to make it a test case in court."
Speaking to his friend and I, Me, Mine editor Derek Taylor in 1979, Harrison said of the episode: "I don't feel guilty or bad about it, in fact it saved many a heroin addict's life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place and its effect far exceeded the legal hassle."
Re-releases and alternative versions
Since its initial release on All Things Must Pass, "My Sweet Lord" has appeared on the 1976 compilation The Best of George Harrison and 2009's career-spanning Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison. The original UK single (with "What Is Life" as the B-side) was reissued on Christmas Eve 1976 in Britain – a "provocative" move by EMI, given the publicity the lawsuit had attracted that year for the song.
1975 – "The Pirate Song"
On 26 December 1975, Harrison made a guest appearance on his friend Eric Idle's BBC2 comedy show Rutland Weekend Television, sending up his serious public image, and seemingly about to perform "My Sweet Lord".
As a running gag throughout the half-hour show, Harrison interrupts the sketches, trying to land an acting role as a pirate (and dressed accordingly), but gets turned down each time by RWT regulars Idle and Neil Innes, who simply want him to play the part of "George Harrison". He then reappears at the end in more normal attire, strumming the well-known introduction to "My Sweet Lord" on an acoustic guitar, and backed by the house band; instead of continuing with the song, Harrison finally takes his chance to play "Pirate Bob" by abruptly segueing into a sea shanty – to the horror of the "greasy" compère, played by Idle. The other musicians follow Harrison's lead, after which a group of dancers appear on stage and the show's closing credits roll.
This performance is known as "The Pirate Song", co-written by Harrison and Idle, and the recording is only available unofficially on bootleg compilations such as Pirate Songs. Observing the parallels with Harrison's real-life reluctance to play the pop star, Simon Leng writes, "there was great resonance within these gags."
2001 – "My Sweet Lord (2000)"
In January 2001, Harrison included a new version of the song as a bonus track on the remastered All Things Must Pass album. "My Sweet Lord (2000)" featured Harrison sharing vocals with Sam Brown, daughter of his friend Joe Brown, backed by mostly new instrumentation, including acoustic guitar by his son Dhani and tambourine by Ray Cooper. The track opens with a "snippet" of sitar, to "emphasize its spiritual roots", Leng suggests. On release, Harrison explained that his motivation for remaking the song was partly to "play a better slide guitar solo"; he also cited the "spiritual response" that the song had traditionally received, together with his interest in reworking the tune to avoid the contentious musical notes, as further reasons. Of the extended slide-guitar break on "My Sweet Lord (2000)", Leng writes: "[Harrison] had never made so clear a musical statement that his signature bottleneck sound was as much his tool for self-expression as his vocal cords." Elliot Huntley opines that Harrison's vocal was more "gospel inflected" and perhaps even more sincere than on the original recording, "given his deteriorating health" during the final year of his life.
This version also appeared on the January 2002 posthumous release of the "My Sweet Lord" single – a three-song charity CD comprising the original 1970–71 hit, the acoustic run-through of "Let It Down" (with recent overdubs, another 2001 bonus track), and Harrison's reworking of the title song. Proceeds from the single went to the Material World Charitable Foundation, set up by Harrison in April 1973. For some months after the single's release, a portion of "My Sweet Lord (2000)" played on Harrison's official website, on a constant loop, over screen images of lotus petals scattering and then re-forming. The song also appears on the 2014 Apple Years 1968–75 reissue of All Things Must Pass.
2011 – Demo version
In November 2011, a demo of "My Sweet Lord", with Harrison backed by just Voormann and Starr, was included on the deluxe edition CD accompanying the British DVD release of Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World documentary. Described as an early "live take" by compilation producer Giles Martin, and an "acoustic hosanna" by David Fricke of Rolling Stone, it was recorded at the start of the All Things Must Pass sessions and was later released internationally on Early Takes: Volume 1 in May 2012.
Harrison performed "My Sweet Lord" at every one of his relatively few solo concerts, starting with the two Concert for Bangladesh shows at New York's Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1971. The recording released on the subsequent live album was taken from the evening show and begins with Harrison's spoken "Hare Krishna" over his opening acoustic-guitar chords. Among the 24 backing musicians was a "Soul Choir" featuring singers Claudia Linnear, Dolores Hall and Jo Green, but it was Harrison who sung the end-of-song Guru Stotram prayer in his role as lead vocalist, unlike on the studio recording (where it was sung by the backing chorus); the slide guitar parts were played by Eric Clapton and Jesse Ed Davis.
During his 1974 North American tour, Harrison's only one there as a solo artist, "My Sweet Lord" was performed as the encore at each show. In contrast with the subtle shift from "hallelujah"s to Sanskrit chants on his 1970 original, Harrison used the song to engage his audience in the practice of "chanting the holy names of the Lord", or kirtan – from "Om Christ!" and Krishna, to Buddha and Allah – with varying degrees of success. Backed by a band that again included Billy Preston, Harrison turned "My Sweet Lord" into an "R&B-styled" extended gospel-funk piece, closer in its arrangement to Preston's Encouraging Words version and lasting up to ten minutes. The performance of the song at Tulsa's Assembly Center on 21 November marked the only guest appearance of the tour when Leon Russell joined the band on stage.
Harrison's second and final solo tour took place in Japan in December 1991, with Clapton's band. A live version of "My Sweet Lord" recorded at the Tokyo Dome, on 14 December, was released the following year on the Live in Japan album.
- George Harrison – vocals, acoustic guitar, slide guitars, backing vocals
- Eric Clapton – acoustic guitar
- Pete Ham – acoustic guitar
- Tom Evans – acoustic guitar
- Joey Molland – acoustic guitar
- Billy Preston – piano
- Gary Wright – electric piano
- Klaus Voormann – bass
- Ringo Starr – drums, percussion
- Jim Gordon – drums, percussion
- Mike Gibbins – tambourine
- John Barham – string and woodwind arrangements
- Bobby Whitlock - harmonium, backing vocals
- uncredited – zithers
- Andy Williams covered "My Sweet Lord" on his 1971 Love Story album, backed by members of the choir of the Wee Kirk o' the Valley of Reseda, California.
- Ronnie Aldrich, British easy listening pianist, covered the song, as well as Harrison's "What Is Life", on his 1971 album, also entitled Love Story (after the equally popular theme song to the 1970 movie Love Story, by Francis Lai).
- Tony Orlando and Dawn performed the song on their television series in the 1970s.
- Homer Louis Randolph III recorded a version of "My Sweet Lord" for his eponymous 1971 album.
- Peggy Lee recorded "My Sweet Lord" in April 1971 for her album Where Did They Go, arranged by Don Sebesky; it was issued on CD in 2008.
- Phil Allen covered the song on his 1971 album The Happy Hammond Goes Pop.
- Ray Coniff's version was released on another 1971 album titled Love Story.
- Bola Sete's version was released on his 1971 album Shebaba.
- Johnny Mathis covered "My Sweet Lord" on his Love Story album.
- Edwin Starr recorded a version in 1971, produced by Norman Whitfield, which was released as a single and appeared on his Involved album.
- A version by Eddy Arnold appeared on his 1971 album Welcome to My World.
- Also in 1971, John Holt recorded a reggae version of "My Sweet Lord", without the background chorus of "hallelujahs" and Krishna references.
- Another 1971 easy listening version of "My Sweet Lord" was recorded by Stu Phillips & The Hollyridge Strings, for their Beatles tribute album The George, John, Paul & Ringo Songbook.
- Marion Williams covered "My Sweet Lord" on her 1971 album Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go; the song was later released on Daytrippers: Songs of the Beatles.
- French orchestral leader Franck Pourcel recorded the song for his Friends album in 1971.
- Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund recorded the Swedish-language cover "Du mitt liv" in 1971.
- Another French orchestrator, Paul Mauriat, recorded "My Sweet Lord" for his 1972 album Le Grand Orchestre de Paul Mauriat Joue Les Beatles.
- Italian singer Iva Zanicchi covered the song on her album Fantasia n. 2: The Beatles in 1972.
- Nina Simone performed an 18-minute gospel reworking of "My Sweet Lord" at Fort Dix before a group of African-American soldiers, a version released on her 1972 album Emergency Ward! (along with her cover of Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity"). She interspersed the song with the David Nelson poem "Today Is a Killer", at the end of which, God is accused of being a killer, giving the otherwise exuberant atmosphere of the performance an apocalyptic ending. No references to Krishna appear in Simone's version.
- Richie Havens covered the song on his 1972 live album Richie Havens on Stage, a version later released on the 1987 album Sings Beatles and Dylan.
- Also in 1972, The Tribe recorded the song for an album titled Bangla Desh, which included cover versions of other highlights from The Concert for Bangladesh.
- In 1973, The Violinaires covered "My Sweet Lord" on their album Groovin' with Jesus.
- Marjorie McCoy released her version of the song on the 1973 album The Other Side.
- In 1975, Julio Iglesias covered the song on his album El Amor, singing it in English even though the song was retitled in Spanish as "Mi Dulce Señor (My Sweet Lord)".
- The Chiffons' version of the song was released as a non-album single in 1975.
- Larry Norman covered "My Sweet Lord" on his 1977 album Streams of White Light into Darkened Corners, and like John Holt, omitted the "hallelujah" refrains and references to Krishna.
- On her 1978 Christmas TV special, Dolly Parton performed the song as part of a spiritual medley, with guest Cher and a choir, with only "hallelujah" being chanted.
- The song was briefly included in Stars on 45's medley of songs, released as a single in May 1981.
- For his 1981 Don't Give In album, Leon Patillo recorded a heavily revised version of "My Sweet Lord". (Among other things, because this was a Christian release, the entire background "hallelujah" section is replaced with the refrain "Jesus".)
- Five Thirty covered the song for the anti-poll tax album Alvin Lives (In Leeds), released in 1990.
- Boy George recorded a version of the song in 1992 for the Ruby Trax: The NME's Roaring Forty compilation album.
- Spanish house music band PCA released their version of "My Sweet Lord" as a single in 1995.
- Stacey Q covered "My Sweet Lord" on her 1997 album Boomerang.
- Swedish band Brainpool recorded the song as a medley with "He's So Fine" and released it as a single in 1997, titled "My Sweet Lord (She's So Fine)".
- In December 1997, Megadeth played the song live (with modified lyrics) at their concert at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
- The Wailing Souls covered "My Sweet Lord" for their 1998 album Psychedelic Souls.
- In 1999, an instrumental version of "My Sweet Lord" was included on Aretha Franklin's Amazine Grace: The Complete Recordings collection, a repackaging of her bestselling album Amazing Grace, recorded live in a Los Angeles Baptist church in January 1972.
- David Young recorded the song for his 2000 covers album Songbook.
- At the American Music Awards in January 2002, soul singer Luther Vandross performed a medley of "Something" and "My Sweet Lord" in tribute to Harrison, among others who died in 2001.
- In April 2002, Elton John, Sting, James Taylor, Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar and others performed "My Sweet Lord" to close the Harrison-tribute opening portion of the Rock for the Rainforest benefit concert, held at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
- Crown of Thorns covered this track on their 2002 album Karma.
- Richard Clayderman recorded a cover of "My Sweet Lord" for his 2002 album Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.
- At the Concert for George on 29 November 2002, the song was performed by Billy Preston, with Sam Brown joining on backing vocals.
- In 2003, Brazilian artist Emmerson Nogueira included a cover of "My Sweet Lord" on his album Versão Acústica 3.
- BeBe Winans recorded a version with specifically Christian, additional verses (and without Krishna references) on his album My Christmas Prayer.
- Girlyman also covered this song, released on their 2003 album Remember Who I Am.
- Danny Colfax Mallon included "My Sweet Lord" on his album George: Harrison's Compositions Interpreted on Piano in 2004.
- Reggae artist Little Roy (Earl Lowe), a Rastafarian, recorded the song for his 2005 album Children of the Most High, replacing the background chorus with sung references to Rastafari.
- Les Fradkin's cover was released in 2005 on his Something for George tribute album, featuring guest appearances from Richie Furay and former Apple recording artist Lon Van Eaton.
- Joel Harrison covered "My Sweet Lord" on his album Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explanations of George Harrison, released in October 2005.
- Nina Hagen recorded a version of "My Sweet Lord" (with Loka Nunda) in 2008.
- John Mayer performed the song live throughout 2008, notably during his performance at that year's Glastonbury Festival.
- A version by Gary Christian & Desa Basshead appeared on the 2008 charity album Liverpool: The Number Ones Album.
- Osibisa covered this track on their 2009 album Osee Yee.
- Jim James (under the name Yim Yames) covered six of Harrison's songs, including "My Sweet Lord", on his 2009 EP Tribute To.
- Klaus Voormann, who had played bass on Harrison's studio version and on the Concert for Bangladesh performance of the song, included a cover of "My Sweet Lord" on his 2009 solo album A Sideman's Journey; Bonnie Bramlett supplied lead vocals on the track.
- Kevin Max has covered this song, with no references to Krishna, for Christian audiences.
- Elliott Smith performed "My Sweet Lord" live with Grandaddy.
- Jose Feliciano has also played this song live.
- Hurray for the Riff Raff contributed "My Sweet Lord" to Harrison Covered, a tribute CD accompanying the November 2011 issue of Mojo magazine.
- In 2014, Brian Wilson played this song with his band (including Al Jardine) live during a tribute to George Harrison.
|1972||"My Sweet Lord"||Record of the Year||Nominated|
Weekly singles charts
|Australian Singles Chart||2|
|Austrian Singles Chart||2|
|Canadian RPM Singles Chart||7|
|Dutch Singles Chart||21|
|Italian Singles Chart||4|
|Japanese Oricon Singles Chart||38|
|UK Singles Chart||1|
|US Billboard Year-End Singles||31|
Certifications and sales
|Japan (RIAJ)||2× Platinum||269,000|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Silver||250,000^|
|United States (RIAA)||Gold||1,000,000^|
*sales figures based on certification alone
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- Alan Clayson, Ringo Starr, Sanctuary (London, 2003; ISBN 1-86074-488-5).
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- Ian Inglis, The Words and Music of George Harrison, Praeger (Santa Barbara, CA, 2010; ISBN 978-0-313-37532-3).
- Peter Lavezzoli, The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, Continuum (New York, NY, 2006; ISBN 0-8264-2819-3).
- Simon Leng, While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison, Hal Leonard (Milwaukee, WI, 2006; ISBN 1-4234-0609-5).
- Chip Madinger & Mark Easter, Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, 44.1 Productions (Chesterfield, MO, 2000; ISBN 0-615-11724-4).
- Douglas McCall, Monty Python: A Chronology, 1969–2012, McFarland (Jefferson, NC, 2014; ISBN 978-0-7864-7811-8).
- Barry Miles, The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years, Omnibus Press (London, 2001; ISBN 0-7119-8308-9).
- Joseph Murrells, The Book of Golden Discs (2nd edn), Barrie & Jenkins (London, 1978; ISBN 0-214-20480-4).
- John P. Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue, W.B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI, 1998; ISBN 0-8028-4430-8).
- Dominic Pedler, The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, Omnibus Press (New York, NY, 2003).
- Jörg Pieper, The Solo Beatles Film & TV Chronicle 1971–1980, lulu.com (2012; ISBN 978-1-4092-8301-0).
- Nicholas Schaffner, The Beatles Forever, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY, 1978; ISBN 0-07-055087-5).
- David Sheff, All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Macmillan (London, 2010; ISBN 978-1-4299-5808-0).
- Bruce Spizer, The Beatles Solo on Apple Records, 498 Productions (New Orleans, LA, 2005; ISBN 0-9662649-5-9).
- Gary Tillery, Working Class Mystic: A Spiritual Biography of George Harrison, Quest Books (Wheaton, IL, 2011; ISBN 978-0-8356-0900-5).
- Bobby Whitlock with Marc Roberty, Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography, McFarland (Jefferson, NC, 2010; ISBN 978-0-7864-6190-5).
- The Super Seventies: "My Sweet Lord"/"Isn't It a Pity" from The Billboard Book of Number One Hits by Fred Bronson
- Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs at UC Berkeley School of Law
- The "My Sweet Lord"/"He's So Fine" Plagiarism Suit by Joseph C. Self
- Lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics